Legendary wrestling coach Roy Pittman fosters kids' growth

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - On a typical day in North Portland, veteran wrestling coach Roy Pittman works on techniques and other skills with girls and boys, some of whom have gone on to be world champions.I've been writing sports in Portland for nearly 40 years, but to my memory, I've never once written about Roy Pittman.

My bad.

In Northwest wrestling circles, Pittman's name is legend. Since he originated the Peninsula Wrestling Club in 1970, Pittman estimates 80,000 youths have come through his program.

Over nearly 35 years, Pittman says he has coached four world age-group champions, four Olympians, about 70 state champions and many Olympic team alternates who have served stints with the U.S. national team. Two of his disciples, Tyrell Fortune and Jacob Mitchell, are heavyweights and strong candidates for the U.S. freestyle and Greco-Roman teams in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016.

Aaron Chiles and Oscar Hicks volunteered with Pittman and helped him run the program from 1992 until the late 2000s.

"Over a 15-year period, we were probably the most successful club in the country, and possibly in the history of the country," says Chiles, 48, a former state champion at Benson High who went on to participate in the Olympic trials in 1984 and '88. "We had more national champions than anybody. It wasn't because we always agreed on everything, but we respected each other."

"We have put more people on the Olympic team (as members or alternates) than any organization with no budget," says Pittman, 70.

How does the Peninsula WC accomplish that?

Pittman says it is because of principles derived from the "roots of life" chart his wrestlers follow and is sold at PWC fund-raisers for $5.

"These are skills kids need before they start elementary school," Pittman says. "Loyalty. Manners. Work ethic. We redefine words. We redefine success. We redefine family, and we give (the wrestlers) a purpose, a reason for being."

Along the walls in the Roy Allen Pittman Wrestling Gymnasium at Peninsula Park Community Center — dedicated in 2007 — are tenets espoused by the guru to his wrestlers, such as:

"A person with a dream can do anything."

The 5-5, 220-pound Pittman is a preparer. He works hard to get his charges ready for wrestling, and for life.

"His program provides more than just wrestling," says 13-year-old Thomas Cousins, in his ninth year working with the PWC. "It provides life skills. It's like an open door. You don't have to be good to start. You can be really good or really bad.

"(Pittman) is more than just a wrestling coach. If I ever have a problem with anything, I always go to coach. I know coach will take care of me."

Shawn Newberry, 40, wrestled for Pittman as a youth. Now Newberry's son, 12-year-old Alex, is in the PWC program.

"I didn't put my son in here for wrestling," says the senior Newberry, pastor of Glisan Street Baptist Church in Northeast Portland. "I put him in here because you develop your character. Winning is part of wrestling, but it takes a long time. Even so, Alex believes in himself. A lot of that is because of coach."

It's all part of what drives Pittman well past the normal age of retirement.

"He loves giving back to the community," says Fortune, 23, a student assistant at Grand Canyon College who was an outstanding wrestler in the NCAA Division II and won bronze at the World University Games last year. "That makes him happy. There aren't too many people in this world who are givers. He just gives so much of himself to everything he does."

It's why Pittman is a veritable Pied Piper on the wrestling scene in the Northwest.

"He's been more than just a coach," Fortune says. "He's a mentor, a father, my best friend. Anything I've ever needed, he's always been there for me."

"He's still my mentor," Chiles says. "We talk often. As far as a human being, there is none better. I've had every coach there is, including Dan Gable at the Olympic Training Center. In my eyes, none of them compare to Roy."

But mostly, Pittman wants to be someone who makes a difference in all kids' lives, not just the ones with Olympic potential. Divorced, with one grown daughter and one granddaughter, his extended family of wrestlers takes center stage.

"I've made it my life," he says. "I want to be an example. I accept the responsibility for being a role model for these young kids."

"We need to give more and take less."

Pittman moved to Portland from Monroe, La., at age 5. His father worked on the railroad. His mother worked in a laundry. He was one of six children. "It was a good household," he says.

A second baseman and wrestler at Washington High, Pittman attended Portland Community College and Portland State. He began professionally as an accountant at a construction company, then was hired as a recreation instructor with the Portland Public Parks Bureau in 1970. Shortly thereafter, he created the wrestling program at Peninsula Park.

"I wanted a program everyone can do," Pittman says. "Baseball, basketball, football — you have to have special skills. With wrestling, you don't. It's the only sport where discipline and dedication will overcome (lack of) athleticism."

Some 44 years later, Pittman is still going strong. Though he retired from his job with the parks bureau in 1999, he has continued to run the wrestling program, volunteering his time and efforts.

"I can only think of three or four times a year he's not in this room," Newberry says. "He's on his feet all day. He's always smiling, always encouraging. Never a bad attitude."

"Coach Pittman is the kindest, most honest person I've met in my life," says Jan Cousins, Thomas' mother. "He's an amazing man — and generous. So giving of himself."

Not only emotionally, but financially.

Boys — and in recent years, girls — age four to 18 come to workout sessions at Roy Pittman Gym as many as five nights a week. The cost of the program is $80 for 10 weeks. If a family can't afford to pay, Pittman welcomes their children in, anyway.

"It isn't about money," he says.

When the kids can't pay, who pays?

"It's absorbed," he says with a shrug.

Pittman makes some money on his summer camps. Truth be told, though, he's probably losing money on the whole deal. Pittman takes his wrestling groups to tournaments several times a year, often out of town.

"As somebody who puts team trips together, I know we don't begin to bring in what it costs to take a team," Jan Cousins says. "Whether we're cooking meals that cost $1.50 or going out to eat for $10, everybody pays the same. Coach Pittman just covers the cost.

"We don't bring in near enough money for what we do. And everybody goes — it doesn't matter if you can afford it or not. Coach will have a room, he'll pay their fees — no one has a clue about who he helps. He's very good about that."

Chiles, who coached with Pittman for more than 15 years, agrees.

"That's what makes Roy so special," says Chiles, now a high school coach in Temecula, Calif. "He likes money like anyone else. But the amount this guy gives, and always has, and still does …

"When I was wrestling, there was never a tournament we couldn't go to. Most of us came from Northeast Portland backgrounds where we didn't have any money. But Roy made sure we were all over the country all the time. When I was coaching with him, most of the kids did not have a dime, but we made sure they all went (to tournaments). The parents very seldom provided $10 or any meaningful amount. We just paid for it out of our own pockets. Roy's thinking was, 'Somewhere down the line, we'll get it back.'"

"Coach Pittman just made it happen," says Oscar Hicks, another former Benson state champion who also coached at PWC. "We'd do odds-and-ends things. We'd rake leaves. Bottle drives. Maybe someone would donate. A lot of times, he was out beating the streets to make sure everyone had the opportunity, and that money was not going to be the issue."

Pittman estimates he has spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars" of his own money for the wrestling program over the years.

"We have a trip coming up to Las Vegas where I have to put up $6,000," he says. "I just do it. I'm retired. You have to spend it on something. This is my vacation.

"All I want to do is save one (child). That's all. Save one. and have one save one, save one, save one."

Pittman would seem a natural for a benefactor such as Nike or Adidas, but he has never had a major donor to his program. Part of it is that wrestling is not a glamour sport such as football, basketball or baseball. Another part is he wants the autonomy to run the program the way he sees fit.

"A lot of people want to control how you deal with kids," he says. "They're not here in the trenches. I think I know best how to make the program a success. And all kids deserve the right to be successful."

"We complete, not compete."

Pittman's wrestling group is diverse. Wrestlers are not just coming from North or Northeast Portland.

"We get kids from as far south as Lebanon, as far north as Chehalis, as far west as Seaside, as far east as The Dalles," he says. "They come in because they feel welcome, and they know when they put on a Peninsula shirt, that means something.

"We have 75 percent white kids right now. They're more at-risk than the young African-Americans because they are camouflaged and they blend in. We're doing things here to make all kids feel welcome."

Jan Cousins makes the drive from Troutdale to North Rosa Parks Way four to five days a week with her son.

"The car ride isn't bad," she says. "It's quality time with your kid. We put our phones away and have important conversations. I do it because the kids who come out of here that are older are incredible people. The accountability coach Pittman teaches is unbelievable. They will face you, they will introduce themselves, they will shake hands, they will speak in front of a group, and they will own their actions."

Pittman has a couple of requirements for every wrestler in his program.

"Every kid who comes in here has to look me in the eyes and shake my hand," he says. "When they do that, they give up control just for that period of time."

Thomas Cousins struggled when he first came to the program. This year, he finished second in his age group at the state meet.

"It's hard to learn to accept disappointment," his mother says. "It's hard to have your butt kicked on that mat. He had to take a beating. For a couple of years, I was concerned. Now the benefits are, he can wrestle tough. He can take a licking and get up and be OK.

"Coach Pittman is honest when you don't want him to be honest. You know what he says is real. He's hard on the kids. He's taking them to a place that is uncomfortable."

Pittman has a philosophy about punishment: There is none.

"The relationship I have with the kids because I don't punish them, they have the freedom to tell me what they did that wasn't correct," Pittman says. "Then we can deal with that behavior right now as opposed to them lying to me."

If foul language is being used, Pittman says, "We use peer pressure. Or I get close to them and say, 'There are other words you can say.' "

"The kids are really honest with Coach," Cousins says. "They don't lie to him. If a kid hasn't shown up for two weeks, he'll say, 'It's good to have you back tonight,' and that's it. There's never anything else."

Cousins says she has learned as much, if not more, than her son from Pittman.

"There isn't any other program like this one," she says. "What coach Pittman has taught me that I know for sure I wouldn't have known. I find myself quoting him. It makes me a better parent."

Cousins isn't the only one to feel that way. Tivon Abel, a former state champion at Jefferson High who later wrestled at Brown University, coached for several years with Pittman. He recalls the regular meetings with parents and wrestlers after practice.

"We'd have this discussion about any number of things, such as how discipline in practice relates to academic progress, about being able to navigate decision-making on a social level with friends," says Abel, 37, who began working with Pittman as a wrestler at age 12. "He engaged parents in those conversations as well. That was a real big part of practice. He'd make sure all the wrestlers kept eye contact with the people speaking.

"Those sessions were invaluable. He had a lot of wisdom to impart on the parents, and also to let them know he'd gone through some of the same things."

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Roy Pittman, who has taught wrestling to an estimated 80,000 Portland-area youngsters during a career of 35-plus years, demonstrates a reversal move at the Peninsula Wrestling Club.

"The will to win is worth nothing unless you have the will to prepare."

Preparation is a major part of Pittman's philosophy.

"I always tell young people success is delayed, not denied," he says. "Everybody wants instant gratification. They all feel entitled. They don't want to work for anything. Well, it's not about winning, it's about the effort. No one ever beats you because they're better than you. They beat you because they prepared better than you."

Ethics are the biggest part of Pittman's message.

"I take young boys and turn them into gentle men," he says, emphasizing the last two words. "The girls we have, I teach them how to be good women and mothers. I want all of them to be positive contributing members of society."

"What he teaches," Newberry says, "are the same things I advocate as a dad. Do your homework, do your chores, respect your parents."

Newberry was raised by his grandmother. She began bringing him to wrestle under Pittman at age 13.

"I was heading down the wrong path," he says. "I was stealing. I was lying. I was getting into trouble with vandalism. My grandmother couldn't always be there in the evenings because she worked. But she made sure I was here, because if I was here, I wouldn't be in trouble."

The experience was life-changing, Newberry says.

"It got me to believe in myself," he says. "When you lie and steal, you don't make eye contact. Coach teaches you that you look people in the eye, you shake their hand. I was probably a sophomore in high school at Sandy when I started to believe in myself, that I can be a good person. Coach helped give me a spine. My son has a spine, and he's 12."

Natasha Williams, a junior at Skyview High in Vancouver, Wash., is one of a half-dozen girls who are members of the PWC. She has been working with Pittman and his volunteer assistants for two years.

"I started wrestling because I was getting in a lot of trouble," she says. "It's been great, and the program is just amazing. I love the coaches. They really care about you. Girls wrestling is not a big thing. Having coaches who want to help you is pretty awesome.

"Some of the wrestlers don't have the best backgrounds. Coach Pittman is a family member to all of them — making sure they're good, they have somewhere to stay. He's a father figure to me — actually to all of our girls team. We're blessed to have him in our life."

Chiles began wrestling under Pittman at age 7, stayed in touch through his time as an inter-service champion in the Marine Corps and coached with him as an adult for about 15 years.

"Roy is a wonderful communicator," Chiles says. "He makes you feel good about your chances, no matter what. To be that inspirational and knowledgeable about his sport is unbelievable. He makes things simple, and you may not believe it at first, but it usually works out to be the way he says. I wouldn't put anyone above him.

"If I had a chance to have somebody coach me, it's Roy. And when it comes to life, I come to him when I need the most advice on anything, To this day, he's never steered me in the wrong direction or led me astray. And he's never judged me."

That's what Pittman is about, Hicks says.

"He makes no judgments," says Hicks, 49, who played football at Portland State and now works as IT director for the Clackamas Fire District. "He accepts all faiths. He gives everyone more than a chance, and he is one of the best role models for young people I've come across.

"Coach Pittman is not a preacher, but he's a strong man of faith. I was a seventh-grader when I first wrestled for him. One of his things was, we all had the potential to be diamonds. His goal was to help us turn from a piece of coal into a diamond. Coach Pittman is beyond awesome, beyond words."

Mitchell, a junior at Cal Baptist who is unbeaten this season and ranked fourth nationally in NCAA Division II, was a state champion at Jefferson High who began wrestling under Pittman at age 6.

"Whenever I come home to Portland, I go to Peninsula Park," says Mitchell, 22. "That's my family. Coach Pittman is one of the people I've most looked up to in my life. He won't let me quit on myself. He's always pushing me, not just to be a better athlete, but to be a better person. He teaches us how to be better men."

Like Mitchell, Fortune is an Olympic team hopeful for 2016. He gives much credit to Pittman for just about everything he has accomplished in life.

"He is my father," says Fortune, who says he still speaks with Pittman about twice a week. "I have no other father figure in my life. He took me under his wing when I was in second grade. But it's not just me. It's amazing how he can walk into a room and people will gravitate to him. Not a lot of people are able to meet somebody once and influence them right off the bat. He'll have you changing and making good life decisions after meeting one time.

"He never does anything half-ass. He puts his heart into it. He's attached to those kids — every single one of them who walks in that door. That's not to mention all the stuff he does off the mat. Everything he did was to make me not just a better wrestler but a better man."

Abel says he has worked with Pittman outside of wrestling through Portland Parks & Recreation, through mentoring and youth summer camps.

"He brings a character-building approach to any of his interactions with younger people," says Abel, who is a technical trainer at the Springville Job Corps. "Or for that matter, with older people."

Pittman has done work with the Portland Police Department, has long served on the city's African-American Advisory Council and was on the Governor's Council for Physical Fitness. For 26 years, he worked with the TLC-TAT (tender loving care-think and try) summer camp to help youths build self-esteem, until dropping off last year. "I finally said, 'I need a break,' he says.

"Are you having fun? Smile."

Pittman loves the fact that so many of his wrestlers return year after year to help out.

"They like it because we're in a fraternity, and it's spread all over the country," he says. "When you mention you wrestled with Peninsula, people know you've paid the price. All programs have roads leading away. Peninsula has roads leading back. If you need your battery charged, you can always come back. If you just want to contribute, you can come back."

Not many coaches get to work in a gym named in their honor.

"Makes me feel great," he says. "Most of the time, they give you things like that when you're dead. Now kids can say, 'He's alive.' You can touch me. I'm accessible."

Why does he continue to coach?

"Why not?" he asks. "We have to be examples for these kids. The examples they see on television are all about 'take' — I, me, and mine. As I tell my coaches, I can't give you money. But I can give you experience, information, knowledge that will help you further along in life."

How much longer will he run the PWC program?

"Realistically, maybe seven or eight more years, if my health holds up," he says. "So far, I feel fantastic."

Says Hicks: "One of his underlying principles: If the good Lord has given him the breath to breathe and the body to move, he'll keep doing it."

When I ask Pittman how he'd like his epitaph to read, he pauses for some time.

"He was used up," he says finally. "I want to be used up. I want to do everything I can. We live by what we give."

He gets that from his parents, Leroy and Lucille Pittman.

"They died about 50 years ago, but they impact every decision I make because of the values they instilled," Pittman says. "They didn't tell me how to live. They lived and let me watch them. They did it the right way."

For 44 years, Pittman has been doing it the right way at Peninsula. It's about time I got around to writing about the good man and his extraordinary contributions to the Portland sports scene.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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